“Clybourne Park” and “A Raisin in the Sun”
by Dramaturg Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell
“[A] play is not an entity in itself, it is a part of history.”
—Kenneth Tynan, theatre critic
Playwright Bruce Norris describes himself as an “irritating human being” who gets into a lot of arguments. Which is lucky for us, because that’s also where a lot of his plays come from, including Clybourne Park. In an interview with Kurt Andersen on the radio program Studio 360, Norris admitted “more often than not I lose the argument. So I go home and I stew about why I lost. And after I stew for a long enough time, I divide the argument up between various voices, various people. And that’s usually the genesis of a play. It’s the endless contentious replay of the argument in my head.”
Oddly enough, Clybourne Park emerged in part from an argument about the Iraq War, rather than a discussion of race relations in the United States or the gentrification of urban neighborhoods. In the early days of that war, Norris expressed his disagreement with it while out with some friends. One of his companions insisted, “Well, you know that you should always support the troops.” Norris asked why if the war conflicted with his beliefs. In what struck Norris as a “terrible rationale,” his friend argued that he should support the troops because of the over-representation of minorities in the military relative to the rest of the population. Norris reported feeling “that kind of Rush Limbaugh outrage at having to suppress my political thoughts for the social niceties that my liberal friend was intent upon me observing.”
But this was only part of the inspiration for Clybourne Park. The other—perhaps more important—part of Norris’s inspiration was Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. That play draws a complex and loving portrait of the Younger family, three generations of African Americans struggling against the forces of racism, classism, and sexism to make better lives for themselves. As a white boy growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Texas, Bruce Norris’s point of identification in Hansberry’s play was Karl Lindner, the representative of the neighborhood “improvement” organization who offers to pay the Younger family not to move into the all-white Clybourne Park. “When I became attracted to [A Raisin in the Sun], I always thought of myself as the antagonist, not as the hero.” And this is where Norris’s parallel play,Clybourne Park, begins: in the heart of the white community that has established, sustained, and benefitted from an antagonistic relationship to African Americans.
The Price of Change
When Norris moved to Chicago from Texas in 1979, he expected to find a city that was racially integrated. He assumed that “we were segregated just because we Texans were all backward hillbillies.” Instead he discovered the ugly truth: that segregation in the North was equally prevalent. In fact, a study conducted by the Urban Institute just last year rated the United States’ top 100 metropolitan areas for racial and ethnic equity based on residential segregation, neighborhood affluence, public school quality, and home ownership. Chicago was the second worst metro area for black-white equity, a legacy that can be traced back to real estate covenants designed to keep black families from moving into white neighborhoods during and after the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North. Even after such covenants were declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1940 in Hansberry v. Lee, neighborhood segregation was enforced unofficially for decades through unfair real estate practices, violence, and urban planning policies.
But as Bruce Norris points out, the characters in the first half of Clybourne Park are “people with good intentions. They’re not racists in the KKK way—they’re people who think that they’re doing the right thing to protect their neighborhood and their children and their real estate values. But that’s a form of self-interest that has as its unfortunate byproduct a really racist outcome.” Likewise, the characters in the second half of the play could be described as making, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the “innocent private decisions” that lead to segregation.
In Act II of Clybourne Park, we are looking at the mirror image of white flight: gentrification. Bill Savage of Northwestern University explains the process: “This [area] first becomes attractive for artists, or poor people, who need a place to live, then the people who open coffee shops for the artists, then the people who open bookstores and bars for the artists, then the people who want to live around the bookstores, bars, and coffee shops in a neighborhood full of artists.” Of course, as all these more affluent folks move in, the cost of living rises, which pushes out the people of limited economic means—generally, the very people who began the process of making the area desirable again.
This is the pattern that has been established in countless urban areas over the past thirty years, from SoHo in New York City to the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. But, as Benjamin Schwartz of The Atlantic points out, change is the name of the game. Gentrification occurs in that “transitional moment…when an architecturally interesting enclave holds in ephemeral balance the emerging and the residual.” The problem—if there is one—is the speed with which that change now seems to take place and how much of an area’s history survives “improvement.”